British Prime Minister Theresa May (Image: EPA/UK Parliament)

She’s only gone and bloody done it again hasn’t she! Theresa May’s government has once again gone to a stonking defeat on a Brexit withdrawal agreement bill, losing 391-242, and throwing the process into a higher degree of chaos than hitherto, insofar as that can be imagined.

The bill that May presented to the parliament was yet another variant of the bill she has been trying to sell for six months now: withdrawal from the EU on March 29, with a customs union taking over, until a UK-EU trade agreement is negotiated.

Relevant UK law would be conformed to EU law, and a special Irish “backstop” agreement, which preserved a de-facto free trade process with Northern Ireland, in order to prevent the re-establishment of a hard border between the Irish republic and Northern Ireland.

The deal had two sticking points for pro-Brexiteers: one, that the UK-EU conformation of laws would be indefinite, thus defeating the whole point of Brexit; and two, that the backstop could eventually apply to Northern Ireland alone, thus putting an EU border down the middle of the UK.

After the delay last year and then massive defeat — the greatest ever on a non-trivial matter by a government in the Commons — May had a last-minute negotiation in Strasbourg, which gained (among other things) a commitment that the UK could try and “disapply” the backstop if an EU-UK trade deal broke down.

This was celebrated by the Tory press as some sort of triumph — May alternates between the British lion and Eeyore on their front pages — until the attorney-general delivered the final blow: the “disapplication” clause would not be legally binding. The law override and the backstop could be in place indefinitely.

That news broke just before the vote, and it broke May. The new deal persuaded 39 pro-Brexit Tories back to the government’s side, but it wasn’t enough. All but three of Labour’s 260 members voted it down, the pro-Remain, pro-second referendum Lib-Dems, Scottish Nats and Plaid Cymru voted against. And so too did the fervently pro-Brexit DUP.

The result couldn’t have been worse than the earlier vote, but it was still the fourth-worst defeat by a government in the Commons, and the second and third were non-core matters that the very minority Labour government faced in 1924.

Following her defeat, May, her voice cracking and failing, gave the House a vote on a “no-deal” departure tomorrow with Tories released from the whip. That will presumably be won, with Labour backing. The question is whether the EU will then grant them that delay.

The EU have already made it clear that they won’t grant it past May 22. May 23 is the date of the European Parliament elections — and that they won’t grant an extension unless there’s an indication that more time would produce a different process, and not the madness that is currently going into its seventh month.

The EU will make this decision next week, which will be the point of no return. If no extension is granted, there will be no possibility of putting a full agreement in place. By any basic standard of governance, May and her cabinet should resign immediately of course, and let the Commons propose an alternative government to the Crown, ahead of an election as soon as possible.

If the inability to determine future sovereignty isn’t the occasion for democratic choice, what is? But the UK is not a democracy. Nor are democracies. The state of exception — the exercise of power — rules, and it is at points of crisis such as this that fact becomes most visible. And the one-time ruler of the world goes to hell in a backstop…

What do you think about May’s handling of the Brexit crisis? Write to [email protected].

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey